Reading dystopian fiction during the coronavirus pandemic: Genre's prescience helps imagine a better future
Dystopian fiction issues warnings and predicts outcomes. It forces us to acknowledge that the evils of the world it depicts are systemic, that something new, something better rests upon the complete annihilation of the old world
Read part 2 of this examination of the value of dystopian fiction here.
“The solar disc was no longer a well-defined sphere, but a wide-expanding ellipse that fanned out the eastern horizon like a colossal fire-ball." Thus unfolds JG Ballard’s masterful 1962 novel The Drowned World, which is about a planet beset by solar instability and extreme climate change. The Earth’s ice-caps and permafrost have long melted, turning the Northern hemisphere into a series of giant, interconnecting lagoons. The great metropolitan cities of the world lay submerged under water, pristine and preserved in a lost moment of time. In the span of a few decades, the world has regressed at a frightening pace. The leaps and bounds of the millennium are a distant dream, and the return of the Triassic Age is incumbent. In the midst of all these changes, the last human inhabitants (numbering a measly five million) carry on with their lives at the sunny North Pole.
Reading Ballard at this moment is an encounter with the uncanny. As the COVID-19 pandemic imprisons global populations, the prescience of dystopian fiction like Ballard’s rings doubly true. The pandemic has snatched away the last veneer of modern civilisation. When we look outside our windows now, the city resembles a massive toy set. With its citizens gone, the eeriness intensifies.
It is exactly at this time that I find myself flipping feverishly through the dystopian novels of Margaret Atwood and William Golding. It can seem counter-intuitive to turn to reams of literary ‘I-told-you-so’s’ in a pandemic that is the result of several unheeded warnings. Logically, we should be turning to all forms of escapist art now. Unexpectedly, the opposite seems to be true. Dystopian fiction and apocalyptic movies are gaining a surprising momentum as people try to find meaning in an uncertain world. Why, exactly, is it so comforting to dig into these end-of-the-world scenarios?
“Where am I? What is this place? What am I going to do now?” — These are questions familiar to readers of dystopian fiction. They signal to us to a protagonist’s early confusion at the nightmarish state of the world they inhabit. At present, we too grapple with these questions as we confront the omniscient phantom of the coronavirus. It is an immensely alienating situation, sure, but as any reader of this genre of fiction would tell you, the discovery of what should be done is also in sight.
Dystopian fiction soothes the anxiety that we’re all beginning to articulate: the world might never be the same again. Reading helps us acknowledge this and imagine alternate futures.
COVID-19 has laid bare the cruelties of our society. It has exposed the precarity of our systems, built as they are on everyday exploitation, that now turn on the very people who built them. The pandemic makes visible the stark contrast between the privileges of the elite and the dreary existence of the working class. In a normal world, we cloak these glaring inequalities with half-truths and aphorisms. We march to the invisible beat of capitalism and quote ditties justifying meritocracy and hierarchy. There’s no hiding what happens now.
Picture this. In Bihar, a woman walks door to door with her dead child in her arms. Nobody will lend a helping hand due to fear of contagion. In a scene that appears straight out of a Cormac McCarthy novel, migrant laborers walk hundreds of kilometers to go home.
COVID-19 is not ‘the great equaliser’. On the contrary, it exacerbates existing inequalities to the point of extreme misery. In our informal economy, many workers rely on a daily wage to eke out an uncertain existence. In face of the virus, they are denied wages and forced to starve. The pandemic forces us to confront the truth: the ‘normal’ world was abnormal — something dystopias have been telling us all along.
The utopian genre came first, introduced to the general public in Thomas More’s 1516 text Utopia, a pun on the Greek words ou-topos (no place) and eu-topos (good place). Subsequent utopian novels explored ideal spaces and faultless societies. It would take another 400 years before dystopia, its dark twin, dominated the literary scene with tales of destruction, famine, war and unfathomable misery.
Dystopias are the antithesis of utopias. They usually take place in a society that has lost all semblance of functioning. If utopias act as promises for the future, dystopias issue warnings. Here are some of the warnings they have issued in the past: irrepressible climate change, the rise of authoritarianism, the emergence of the surveillance State, the danger of celebrity, loss of reproductive control.
Both utopias and dystopias act as histories of the present in that they reveal hidden truths that society has seen fit to shove under the carpet. Conditions of class oppression, loss of human dignity, gender prejudice are exaggerated and explored in dystopian worlds. The line between the two genres often blurs; the perfection of some utopias contains simmering oppression, whereas certain dystopian writing is underpinned by utopian longings. Often, a synthesis of these two forms exists, such as in Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia where two such societies exist side by side, transformed by contact with one another.
Dystopian fiction is often perceived as being unremittingly bleak. Indeed, not all texts are radical. Some leave you with an unchanging sense of despair. There is no alternative, they seem to say, just accept it. This is a conservative streak within the genre that has produced formulaic novels. In contrast, progressively inclined texts refuse to settle for the status quo. In Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, the protagonist goes from burning outlawed books to realising their importance, to finally fighting the State in order to keep the legacy of reading alive.
The bleakness of dystopian texts often invites accusations of escapism. Naysayers scream about hope, failing to understand that this form of escape from reality can actually lead to a very different way of thinking about the world. Readers leave these books with a clearer perception of what ails our present. For instance, readers of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed have repeatedly evoked her novel to make the case for anarcho-socialist modes of living.
Good dystopian fiction is often identified by how prescient it is. It gains a cultural relevance for predicting outcomes. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale foresaw America’s cruel negation of reproductive freedom. The titular Handmaid is a symbol for pro-choice activists. They dress in her garb, protesting against legislation that snatches away women’s reproductive freedoms. Similarly, JG Ballard’s first four novels were lauded for forecasting the ravages of man-made climate change. The writer of such fiction performs a Cassandra function: Like the mythological Greek priestess, they may go hoarse yelling out warnings to general disbelief and ridicule, only to be feted for it when it is too late. However, it is worth noting that we do not turn to fiction to be warned. We turn to it to help us understand a moment in time.
Our current condition was predicted in the pages of a dystopian novel long ago. It took a pandemic for us to truly think of a break with the status quo. Now what? We cannot long for a nostalgic return to the way things were. It is a conservative outlook that justifies unjust and unequal societies. I continue to read agitatedly, hoping my dystopian novels will have an answer. Here is what I found: these novels plant the germ of imagination in our mind. This is the great gift that they present to us — the radical possibility of creating something new. Dystopias, for the most part, are an inherently progressive form of literature. This is because they force us to acknowledge that the evil of the world they depict is systemic. There’s no escaping or fixing ‘Big Brother’, there’s only ending it. There’s no single aberration that can be picked out and changed. The critical reading provided to us is that something new, something better rests upon the complete annihilation of the old world.
The investigative quality of dystopian fiction reminds us of the impermanence of reality. Nothing is as secure as we think it is. “Reality is just a stage set,” was JG Ballard’s response to a question about the predictive power of his fiction. He concluded that “it could be dismantled overnight”. Even Atwood’s Gilead does eventually fall. We must interest ourselves with the story of the fall. Dystopias, with their unrelenting sense of interrogation, familiarise us with the process of the fall. We do not think that it will end one day. Rather, we interest ourselves in how it might end. I know two things: that the pandemic will end, and that nothing will stop us from creating a new reality; a better, equal world. What a marvelous freedom there is in knowing that.
Shivani Bhasin is a writer based in Mumbai
Read part 2 of this examination of the value of dystopian fiction here.
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